Allan Massie - Who can tell their Left from their Right in Scottish politics?

Independence might be the only thing to prise Labour and the Tories off the centre ground.

ARE you on the Left or the Right? Most of us would now be more likely to mutter "don't know really" than give a firm answer to that question. Socialism is dead. Remember "the commanding heights of the economy" which were to be taken into State ownership? Vanished, dispelled like morning mist by the bright sun of Thatcherism. Even the sacred NHS is not spared – in England anyway – from the dread hand of the private sector. Here things are a bit different. Nicola Sturgeon sets her face against any private sector involvement in the sacred monster. Does that put the SNP to the left of Labour? Could be.

Look at Glasgow East. We don't know just why people voted as they did, though disgruntlement with the performance of Gordon Brown's government must have contributed to the 6,000 more votes the SNP got than in the last general election. It may have been, as Alex Salmond said it would be, "a victory for Scotland" – whatever that means. But was the 22 per cent swing from Labour to the SNP a swing from left to right or vice versa? Or perhaps a swing that simply doesn't register on the old left-right swing meter?

Earlier this week James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, announced his proposals for welfare reform. The SNP candidate John Mason triumphantly shrieked "Labour own goal". Perhaps it was, but was Mr Purnell playing from left to right or the other way round?

If his plans, supposing they are ever enacted, force people back into jobs and so lift them out of poverty, would that be a left-wing or right-wing achievement? Difficult question.

Perhaps the old terms are simply obsolete. Certainly it's hard to discern any Right in Scotland today, unless it's embedded in certain sections of the SNP, which nevertheless likes to describe itself as a Social Democratic Party. For the Scottish Tories Annabel Goldie may make old-style right-wing demands on the subject of crime, but otherwise her party seems feart to leave the comfortable cosiness of the crowded centre. Indeed, almost everyone is jostling to be there, which makes politics a matter of personalities rather than policies, of soundbites rather than programmes. The centre is so congested you might think the Tories should break out and take a few risks, advocating education vouchers to free up the market in schools for instance. But no chance.

Years ago when the Tories were in office I used to write articles saying that if they were ever to recover in Scotland, they had to be Scottish Gaullists, ostentatiously patriotic and seeking to draw support from all sectors of the electorate. This would have required them to play down, or dilute, ideology in order to win votes. Unscrupulous, yes, but it might have worked.

It's too late for them now. We already have a Scottish Gaullist party. It's called the SNP. Like Gaullism it's less a party than a movement, with aspirations rather than firm policies, a movement capable of presenting different faces to different people. So we have Jim Mather cosying up to business and Nicola Sturgeon standing resolute in support of an ever expanding public sector.

The centre is statist. Perhaps this is indeed what the majority of Scots want: a public sector capable of offering employment and managing the less fortunate, called the "economically inactive". It makes sense in a way. It makes sense anyway as long as the Treasury in London is still signing the cheques.

What however if Alex Salmond's dream comes true and we vote for Independence? Might we then see a Left-Right division reappear? After all, such a division is still to be found in some small European countries.

Independence would force choice on politicians and on the electorate. How best to be responsible for ourselves? There would be arguments about the level of taxation, and on the choice to be made between direct and indirect taxes. There would be arguments about the size of the public sector. About its proper functions and scope.

Arguments about the role of the market in health provision and education would take on a new urgency. So would arguments about the regulation of business, about monetary and macro-economic policy. It would all be lively and interesting, if decidedly unsettling.

Socialism is dead, but the Right in Scotland has been emasculated. Committing itself to the Union – for years to the unreformed Union – it has deprived itself of all freedom of action and has also all but completely stifled any capacity for thought it might have. Perhaps only independence could revive the Scottish Right, could enable one party to break out of the consensus that rules the centre.

Of course for many who think of themselves as Tories, breaking the Union would be a price too high to pay for a renaissance of right-wing intellectual enterprise. Better to stay where they are, grumbling within the consensus. For many, Independence remains a threat, like those old maps on which cartographers wrote "here be dragons " in uncharted waters. But the consequence is that the Scottish Right has as much vitality as a beached whale.

The Left is no better off, and might not even in an independent Scotland think it possible to revive the old Socialist dream of a planned economy.

So we are all bound together in the centre, which suits the Gaullists of the SNP just fine. If politics have become a matter principally of personalities, there's no one to match Alex Salmond who speaks, as he reminds us every day, "for Scotland".

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